Mariusz Stepien went to a farmer’s field on June 21, 2020, to see what he could find.
That particular Sunday, he chose a pasture because it was the first time he’d been out in months.
It appeared like a tourism ad when Scotland implemented movement restrictions in the early stages of the COVID crisis.
The little elevation is located in the middle of a lush green field a few miles from Peebles, Scotland’s former wool capital and now a bedroom community for Edinburgh.
The River Tweed meanders through the valley below, and on a clear day, the Scottish Borders’ lush, rolling peaks may be seen in all directions.
A waist-high stone wall runs down one side of the field, containing 200 sheep, and a small two-lane road runs along with the other.
Stepien is a carpenter who runs a modest house remodeling company. But metal detecting is his true love.
He’s spent every Sunday he could for the past nine years, regardless of the weather, walking fields and pastures in the countryside in quest of buried gold.
He goes alone at times, and with like-minded people at other times. “I look forward to Sunday all week,” he says.
“It’s the most pleasant way for me to spend time in a gorgeous landscape.”
Stepien steps for up to 12 hours straight to find hidden metal, sweeping the wand of a four-foot-long metal detector back and forth (a Minelab Equinox 800, to be exact, a popular model at the premium end of the market).
The technology was created during World War II to aid in the detection and disposal of field mines.
The devices use an electromagnetic coil to generate a current that sparks a signal when it strikes a conductive material—a whine he hears via his worn black headphones.
He’s learned over the years to tell what kind of treasure is concealed beneath the surface and how much it’s worth from the pitch.
A low tone could indicate an iron nail. A silver coin or the brass end of a spent shotgun round could be slightly higher.
The larger the find, the louder the noise.
His headphones filled with a clear, high tone—the strongest he had ever heard—as he ascended a little slope in the meadow that July day.
Kneeling in the tall grass, he lifted a boulder the size of a loaf of bread, then used a little paintbrush to clear loose soil beneath it.
He dug something green, spherical, and hard out of the dirt after a few minutes.
Dariusz Gucwa, Stepien’s buddy, and fellow detectorist was making his way through the grass when his walkie-talkie came to life on the opposite end of the field.
Stepien cried out, “Dariusz, please come now.” “I believe I have discovered something significant.”
In the weeks that followed, this discovery sparked a large excavation effort conducted by Treasure Trove, a two-person squad that receives reports of antiquities uncovered in local soil.
In practice, the agency acts as a middleman between hobbyists, keen-eyed gardeners, beachcombers, and others.
and anyone else who discovers a historical artifact On the other hand, there are museums.
Amateur treasure hunters like Stepien are required by law to report anything that may be historically or archaeologically significant.
from stone tools to silver coins, as well as information on where they were discovered.
The concept is based on the historic belief that all unclaimed property in Scotland belongs to the Scottish government.
Or, in Great Britain’s tradition-laden phrase, the Crown.
Treasure Trove has evolved in Europe during the last 20 years as an example of collaboration between heritage authorities and the metal detecting community—two organizations that have previously been at odds.
Advocates say that responsible recreational searching aids in the discovery of objects and sites that archaeologists lack the resources or time to seek for.
SEARCHING FOR COMMON GROUND
Archaeologists and metal detectorists like Stepien frequently have a tense relationship.
There’s a vibrant community of hardcore hobbyists in Scotland and nearby England and Wales who discuss their finds in online chat rooms and meet for metal detecting “rallies” that bring dozens of individuals together in farm fields to search, swap stories, and show off their finds.
While treasure seekers and amateur archaeologists are popular terms among amateurs, many professionals prefer the term “looters.”
Metal detector finds are frequently destroyed, disappear into dusty attics, or are sold on the black market for stolen artifacts, according to experts.
Metal detectors have been used to discover and steal intact tombs or archaeological sites in nations such as Italy, Greece, and Spain, and authorities have special divisions dedicated to tracking down illicit excavators.
Even the most well-intentioned amateurs can cause harm. Overzealous enthusiasts have been known to dip coins in vinegar to remove protective patinas or straighten twisted metal.
Possibly removing traces of how or why they were utilized in the first place.
The object’s “context,” in archaeological terms, is gone permanently once it is removed from the find site and that harm is done.
There’s also a philosophical component. Ancient relics and ruins are declared public heritage in several countries.
“Archaeological things, to us, do not belong to the landowner, but the state, to everyone,” says Ignacio Rodriguez Temino, a heritage law researcher at the Department of Heritage in Seville, Spain.
“We believe that no one has the right to become the proprietor of an archaeological object they discover.”
Using metal detectors to search for antiques is illegal in Spain and most other European nations.
Metal detecting was legal on private land until the 1990s, but it was frowned upon by authorities and archaeologists in the UK.
Instead of cracking down on hobbyists, Scottish authorities chose in 1996 to take the attitude of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Creating an official Treasure Trove office and a transparent compensation system with publicly published fees gave metal detectorists and others an incentive to record finds that may otherwise be lost, even if the legal ideas underpinning it have been around for generations.
“Metal detecting is taking place, and enforcing a prohibition is difficult. We might as well engage with these folks as archaeologists. If you earn their trust, you’ll obtain a lot more information.”
In 1997, Pieterjan Deckers of the Free University of Brussels launched the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which covers England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
A handful of other European countries, notably Finland, the Netherlands, and Denmark, have followed suit in the previous five years.
“It’s a practical approach. Metal detecting is taking place, and enforcing a ban is difficult,” says Pieterjan Deckers, an archaeologist at the Free University of Brussels who studies metal detecting and assisted in the establishment of a reporting system in Belgium.
“We might as well engage with these individuals as archaeologists.” If you earn their trust, you’ll obtain a lot more information.”
Metal detecting, in theory, can be used to engage the help of the general population in data collection.
Individual coins, for example, may not be worth much on their own, especially if they’ve been picked from farm fields that have been ravaged by decades of rigorous plowing.
A clever researcher would be able to comprehend the political reach of a historical kingdom or map out the regions where people were most likely to settle at different times using a database of coins unearthed by detectorists.
By allowing scholars to map coinage and metal findings, metal detecting has offered new insights into the Viking colonization of England, for example.
Since its inception, the Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded almost 1.5 million findings in a database.
“Understanding of metals has changed British archaeology,” Deckers argues.
“If metal detecting is done according to a set of rules, it can aid in the preservation of the past.”
When a lead arrives at Treasure Trove—normally a handful per day, usually via email—agency head Emily Freeman and her colleagues contact archaeologists, museum curators, and other specialists, sharing images and adding items to a national database.
The artifact is claimed on behalf of the government by the impressively called Queen and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer if they decide an artifact belongs in one of the country’s museums.
In most years, Scottish museums have interfered in roughly 150 cases, with each case ranging from a single coin to a treasure of hundreds of items.
Meanwhile, finders are compensated based on the market worth of the item. In the year 2017,
Those prices varied from around $15 for a musket ball to $2.5 million for a pile of Viking treasures in Galloway, a number Freeman describes as “quite unusual for us.”
(In the meantime, nine of the approximately 60 finders waived their award that year.) The majority of them cost between $15 and $10,000.
Freeman spends a lot of time on outreach when she isn’t identifying items.
She gives events in museums and bars across Scotland to teach amateurs like Stepien about the great difference between archaeology and “nighthawking,” the term for searching without the permission of a landowner or in national parks or other protected areas—all of which are illegal in Scotland.
“We’re attempting to refocus our focus to the value metal detectorists offer to the archaeological record or museum collections,” she says. The sight of Stepien halting in that meadow is a ray of optimism.
He’d never reported anything to Treasure Trove before, but he knew who to call thanks to pals in the neighborhood.
Stepien and Gucwa were kneeling over the pit, taking shots with their phones while Stepien pushed away more soil.
He couldn’t tell what the palm-sized item was because it was covered in mud.
Gucwa stood there for the next half hour, watching and photographing while Stepien pulled four more objects from the ground.
Three of them were D-shaped, with rounded corners, unlike any other coin Stepien had ever seen.
He could see concentric circle patterns and what appeared to be fragments of wood when he brushed the moist dirt away with his fingertips.
In his native Polish, he swore gently.
Stepien paused his digging, carefully repositioning the stone, and smoothing the grass around to hide any indications of disruption.
He and Gucwa, giddy with anticipation, took one more photo, carefully wrapped the metal artifacts, packed their belongings, and drove away.
“How can four objects fit into such a small space?” Stepien recalls, “That’s not natural.” “I knew we had to call Treasure Trove,” says the narrator.
WINNING FIRST PLACE
Freeman had no idea what she was looking at when she read the email from Stepien.
She was aware, however, that the objects in the accompanying images were old. It’s really old. “Most of the items we deal with aren’t particularly valuable in terms of money.
But they’re still important archaeologically, or we wouldn’t be claiming them,” Freeman argues.
“Is it rare, distinctive, or unusual?” is a key part of the decision-making process.
The finds appeared to check all three categories at first look. An encyclopedic knowledge of Roman coins and a historian with two master’s degrees,
They didn’t seem medieval, Viking, or Roman, according to Freeman, the most prevalent categories of pre-modern items that come across her desk.
She forwarded them to Fraser Hunter, an archaeologist and curator at the National Museum of Scotland, on the strength of a hunch.
Hunter quickly recognized that their green patina suggested something far older: Bronze Age metal.
which lasted in Scotland from 2200 to 800 BCE.
Because of its chemistry, bronze, an alloy of copper, tin, and occasionally lead, as well as trace elements like aluminum and arsenic, is particularly appealing to preservationists.
As the bronze corrodes, it generates an antibacterial environment in the soil.
That is to say, it delays and prevents the degradation of materials such as leather, wood, and fabric for millennia, if not longer.
“Organics transport you to forgotten planets of the past, to things that would otherwise perish.
As an archaeologist, that is the holy grail,” Hunter adds. “When you combine it with Mariusz’s claim that he’d left things in the ground, I realized this was something we needed to look into.”
Stepien led Freeman, Hunter, and a few other archaeologists to the area where he originally discovered the discs less than 72 hours after his detector first pinged.
The crew was soon working in T-shirts to clean turf from a 12-by-12-foot square surrounding the site on a beautiful, warm morning.
The two metal detectorists scanned the cleared ground while the specialists worked.
Stepien and Gucwa used their wands and a stubby, orange hand-held metal detector nicknamed “the Carrot” to assist pinpoint the deposits’ outer limits.
They quickly discovered a three-foot-long, two-foot-wide zone where the signal was extremely strong.
The researchers scraped soil a fraction of an inch at a time with trowels, dental picks, and brushes.
showing the silhouette of other objects: first a bronze sword, then a tangle of items similar to those found by Stepien days earlier.
Hunter and Freeman understood they had a hoard on their hands within hours, something deliberately hidden in the aim of retrieving it later or as part of a ritual or ceremonial.
It had been 1864 since anything similar had been discovered in the area. The actual prize, according to Hunter, wasn’t the metal, but the evidence of organic substance he could see amid the artifacts.
The sword’s blade is concealed by a tangle of leather straps and a wood-and-leather scabbard.
The fact that it hadn’t been ripped apart by a farmer’s plow was a near-miracle, probably due to the stony terrain.
Stepien may have dug out the first few objects with a shovel instead of a brush.
He may have irreversibly damaged the 3,000-year-old material if he went deeper into the hole to bring out the metal he knew was still there.
“With a spade, you could have destroyed it in five minutes,” Hunter recalls. “It takes a great deal of self-control to stop. We’re quite fortunate that they did.”
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
A stunning find developed from the stony Peebleshire grassland during the next ten days.
Fraser was joined by Matthew Knight, a red-haired Bronze Age specialist from the National Museum of Scotland who had been called back from pandemic leave to assist with the discovery.
They gradually uncovered the outline of the trove by removing earth, pebbles, and fist-sized stones a fraction of an inch at a time.
It turns out that the scabbard was only the beginning. What had appeared to be a mess of unusual bronze coins underneath turned out to be a complete horse harness, complete with metal tabs, rings, and buckles still linked to leather straps.
Some of the fittings, such as the spherical bits Stepien first dug from the earth, were stubbornly difficult to put.
Knight returned home after 12-hour days kneeling in the field and rummaged through old excavation reports and museum catalogs in search of something comparable.
He was taken aback when he realized the fittings were from a rattle pendant.
As the horse walked, a system of interconnected rings jangled and chimed.
Knight describes it as “Bronze Age bling.” “This is what a Bronze Age Rolls Royce looked like.”
According to Knight, the discovery connects this remote part of Scotland to the rest of the world.
Similar jangle pendants are prominent characteristics of upper-class Bronze Age burials in Denmark and southern Scandinavia, despite their rarity in Britain.
Was Peebles previously home to a foreign dignitary or an itinerant master craftsman from across the North Sea? “You catch glimpses of international trade networks now and then,” Knight explains.
We’re starting to form an impression of a community with ties to that region of Europe.”
The findings, which have been left exactly how they were buried 3,000 years ago, provide information that metal alone could not express.
They show the divide between archaeologists and the general population when it comes to defining “treasure.”
The site’s organic remains, which were preserved down to bits of the thread used to stitch the straps together, are the real prize for Knight.
Knight says, “This tiny piece of rope is possibly the best thing I’ve ever uncovered as an archaeologist.”
“Because we have all the organics, we can see connections–we can see how everything worked.”
Horses were first imported to Britain around 1000 BCE, according to archaeologists.
Knight now had the opportunity to reconstruct how they were riding, their size, and even the sound their tack made when they trotted.
The non-metal remains, as intriguing as they were, presented a challenging challenge.
The team’s beautiful, cloudless skies suddenly gave way to “typical Scottish summer weather,” Hunter adds, with “sunny one minute and howling winds and rain the next.”
A nearby farm’s owner once deposited manure on the field upwind, filling the region with the odor for days.
Stepien began working in the field 24 hours a day. He assisted in the windproofing of the excavation trench by stacking hay bales around it.
He shooed grazing sheep away from the archaeologists’ work to prevent them from walking across the site.
Concerned that the tents and everyday activity would draw unwanted attention from the locals,
He bought a tent and a sleeping bag and slept every night close to the trove.
He had the phone number of the nearest police station saved in his phone. Gucwa, who works at a supermarket in Edinburgh, joined him as soon as he could.
Stepien says, “We owed the place something.” “I felt like I was in charge of that location.”
GETTING IT HOME
During the day, Knight and Hunter briefed the site’s stewards on what researchers had learned about Scotland around 1000 BCE.
What could have driven someone to bury such costly equipment, and why?
The majority of people lived in small farming communities of a few dozen people.
Horses and carts were cutting-edge technology, reserved for the wealthy and well-connected.
Furthermore, archaeological evidence from Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom suggests that life was growing more violent and hazardous.
Swords, shields, and other military equipment became more widespread when communities began to erect walled settlements.
Meanwhile, Peebles’ digging slowed. Because the brittle hide straps were strung through the bronze fittings, they were prone to breakage.
Every movement threatened to harm the leather and fabric that remained.
Hunter says, “I’ve excavated a dozen hoards and never worked on anything this complex and demanding.”
The deteriorating conditions compelled him to make a difficult decision: continue excavating the priceless, fragile wealth in the field for another two or three months, or abandon it.
may try to encase it in plaster and raise it out of the earth in one piece, a last-ditch method called block lifting by archaeologists.
If they are successful, the find will be brought to Edinburgh, where conservators will securely dissect it in a lab at the National Museum.
Finally, the weather in Scotland revealed the answer. Conditions deteriorated rapidly around two weeks after the excavation began.
Stepien awoke at 3:20 a.m., alone in the dark, to the sound of wind battering the sides of his tent–and then the sound of ripping nylon as the hoard’s canopy collapsed outside.
He spent three hours, drenched to the skin, attempting to keep the trench from overflowing and the tents from blowing away before giving up.
He says, “It was Armageddon.” It would be a block lift.
Digging several feet of soil all around the trove in preparation for the lift was a major undertaking.
In the rocky ditch, it stood out like a plaster-wrapped pimple.
Stepien custom-built a four-foot-long, three-foot-wide wood box for the block lift as Hunter, Knight, and National Museum conservators prepared for the lift.
Another clue to the find’s past emerged as a result of the work. The ruins of walls could be seen on both sides.
indicating that the treasure was initially concealed in a demolished building’s doorway
The sword on top was pointing outwards, like an arrow.
Many Bronze Age hoards appear to have been buried as sacrifices or offerings.
Giving up or destroying so much money so freely had to be a show of power as well as devotion.
The Peebles treasure appears to be the same. Knight explains, “We’re seeing the hoard as an offering.”
“Something important must have occurred for them to decide to bury everything.
It’s a major issue in the context of a small farming community–something like this doesn’t happen every day or even every generation.”
The so-called Peebles hoard is now housed in a climate-controlled lab inside the museum, still in the box made by Stepien.
Knight will remove the plaster as soon as the pandemic permits and begin digging in earnest.
As he unravels the straps–and secrets–of each piece, he meticulously records its placement and position.
Knight says, “I’ll be working on this find for the next ten years.”
The team hauled the 440-pound block of damp soil out of the trench jointly and slid it into the back of Stepien’s white van three weeks and one day after they initially started digging.
Stepien remembers the comfort and pride he felt as the door closed months later.
He and Gucwa sat in quiet for the hour-long drive to Edinburgh’s museum, one last time alone with the prize.
They felt calm and relieved for the first time in weeks. Gucwa explains, “We knew we had the most essential thing in the world in the boot of the vehicle.”
“We were overjoyed that we didn’t have to worry about anything longer, and that the treasure was safe.”
Treasure Trove and similar techniques want to disseminate this sense of historical care while Stepien and his fellow metal detectorists continue to scour fields for hidden treasure.